The Items That Belong


Many of us know what it is like to own too many things: they stuff our closets, overfill our cupboards, and lurk in the corners of our rooms, discarded and forgotten. While it can be tempting to toss them out to clear up some much-needed space, an argument can also be made for going through our neglected belongings and returning them to regular use in our lives.

For an ever increasing population of middle- and upper-class members of society, today’s era is one characterized by plenty and abundance. If you’re hungry an hour after breakfast, chances are that you don’t need more than five minutes to land your hands on something to satisfy your craving, minimal preparation required. At the grocery store, produce and ingredients from places once considered far-flung and exotic are stacked in glorious pyramids, having made their trek in high-tech, refrigerated shipping containers in the span of a few short days. Bilingually labeled snacks manufactured in factories halfway across the globe are both affordable and convenient whenever the craving for haggis-, or matcha-, or harissa-flavored munchies kicks in. It’s not just our food that comes so easily—so, too, do the clothes we wear. In an era of high fashion, athleisure, and everything in between, when styles are rolled out on a seasonal basis and fast fashion trends disappear only to reappear four years later, it’s easy to own twenty sweaters, thirty pairs of shoes, and fourteen different coats and parkas and capes. Then there are our phones, tablets, e-readers, laptops, and portable speakers, dragging with them the tangled jumble of wires, chargers, dongles, and adaptors that live like a nest of snakes in a drawer or the back of a room.

How is it that we can own so much stuff? Money can’t be the only explanation; our ability to obtain any of the above doesn’t seem to depend on whether we’re debt-laden students with tuition to pay, or well-salaried executives with cushy paychecks. What does play a role, regardless of social rank or status, is the constant exposure to the sometimes subliminal, sometimes obvious marketing messages about the things we don’t yet own. There exists a prevalent idea that one mark of entrepreneurship and stand-out design is the ability to create something that people need, before we even know we need it.  From social media, to billboards in the subway station, to commercials and talk shows conducted over AM and FM wavelengths, we learn of the newest and latest products, and can be easily persuaded that these items will help us to attain a particular lifestyle of leisure, efficiency, or coolness. Even if you don’t make the purchase yourself, the objects may very well end up in your home, courtesy of a well-intentioned family member of friend, in the guise of a winter holiday gift or a birthday present.

Centuries old debates center on how much stuff is necessary, and how much of it is too much [1].  Many of these arguments revolved around the concept of human well-being and happiness, and were concerned with what was required to achieve an existence of bliss and contentment. To some, the ideal state was one in which you had the material items necessary to meet basic needs, like eating and drinking, while avoiding a difficult or painful life at one end of the spectrum and dispensing with the ambition for greater wealth or status on the other. Accordingly, a set of bowls would be acceptable for a family of four, but artistically decorated platters of highly refined porcelain carrying the mark of a famous kiln in Jingdezhen or Meissen could be conceived as excessive, particularly if ownership of the item only served to elevate your social or financial status. To others, a true understanding of human existence could only be obtained when everything was discarded and stripped away, leaving behind the most minimal pieces required for survival. From this point of view, a bowl wouldn’t be necessary, because your hands could serve the same function to cup a handful of water or hold a crust of bread. In essence, these debates boil down to what we are content to have: have too much and you yearn for more, have too little and you feel as if you don’t have enough.

The perfect amount of stuff, assuming the concept exists, could be considered a moving target, for it probably depends on the person in question as well as the time and place one finds oneself in. Logically, we might assume that there is always something to get rid of, as long as our circumstances continue to change. The concept of minimalism has long since entered mainstream culture, giving rise to the popularity of capsule wardrobes and the energetic responses surrounding methods like KonMari [2]. According to these contemporary philosophies, we discard that which is not used or does not fall sufficiently high along the (sometimes arbitrary) barometer we use to measure daily joy. What we should be left with, at the end, is a carefully curated collection of things that we are happy to claim as belonging to us.

Belonging, however, is a word with more than one meaning. As a noun, it describes something that you possess, usually existing within boundaries that demarcate a space as yours (your bedroom, your work desk, your gym locker). As a verb, it is also a way of defining your relationship and identity relative to a group of people, a place, or a time. In the latter sense of the word, perhaps an item is only properly referred to as one of your belongings if it somehow contributes to your life story or your sense of who you are. Such a piece of your property might be one that you saved up for months or years to purchase by pinching every last penny of your expendable income, or it might be a memento acquired from a family member as a reminder of your history, or a token of thoughtfulness from a friend or co-worker who saw a souvenir that reminded them so much of you that they felt compelled to buy it for you.

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With the recent arrival of the New Year comes the expectation for a fresh slate and the ability to restart on the right foot. As our friends share their new year’s resolutions and begin to detail their plans for the year’s great adventures, many of us take advantage of the burst of motivation and energy to sort through our homes. Out with the old, or broken, or dust-collecting, and in with the new, and fabulous, and the next great thing. In some cultures, cleaning the home and tossing out the things that need to be replaced is symbolic of making space for good luck: forget to sweep out the dirt in the entry hall or wipe down the dust on the blinds, and you just might retain the bad luck from the prior year. For many of us, the act of cleaning out the closet and purging the cupboards is also a way to regain some physical space—whether for less visual clutter, or to have room for new purchases.

The act of purging our belongings might also be an effect of trying to get rid of the parts of ourselves that we aren’t particularly fond of. Those outfits from five or ten years ago might be the ones we last wore when we were immature college freshmen or overly-eager job hunters, and the desire to push them away may stem from the personas we are trying to project: cool, collected, sophisticated. Or, those figurines on the nightstand and the stuffed animals on our beds might remind us of our childishness in years past, which detract from our attempts to appear adult and responsible, or our interior design goals of clean, modern living. The need to curate our lives is increasingly pressurized in the era of Instagram influencers and personal brands. However, if our belongings are a representation of the communities we have a membership in and a link to our life stories, getting rid of those items means getting a rid of part of ourselves. Such a decision shouldn’t be dependent on whim or fancy.

Bagging up our belongings for the curb might be an act of haste, and one that we would do well to reconsider. It is important not only to consider whether something is truly useful or essential, but also to remember why we have it in the first place. A shirt I haven’t worn for two years, not because it doesn’t fit, but because I have no occasion to wear it, or because it’s no longer trendy, or because someone passed it on to me and I never liked it that much anyway, isn’t necessarily valueless. In fact, if I give it a last scrutinizing look, I might realize that it resembles the shirt I was admiring on my friend the other day, or recall that my aunt bought it for me because it looked like something a young adult having fun might wear. That might be reason enough to save the article from the discard pile—and feel like I have something new to wear, simply by adding it to my wardrobe rotation. By simply considering why I might want to keep it, rather than (or, at least, in addition to) making a list of reasons why I don’t want it, I remind myself of the important memories associated with the object. Like anything else, our appreciation for the items we own and use requires some mental reinforcement and dedicated time for reflection. If we simply get rid of things because we don’t use them anymore, without taking the time to remember that they are waiting on our hangers and shelves and cubbies, then almost everything will end up in the trash. After all, if we own so many things, aren’t we going to forget about some of them every once in a while?

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